Smith NW

Huskers hopes hinge on 3rd down

Think Nebraska has spent much time scheming for Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson?

“You can’t spend all of your time worrying about Denard Robinson,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said on Tuesday. “But at the end of the day, he is 68.2 percent of their total offense.”

That number rolled off the tongue. In terms of yardage it’s 309.1 per game, tops in the Big Ten and 14th nationally.

“Denard is extremely dangerous. Every time he touches the ball he is a threat to take it the distance,” Papuchis said. “The biggest keys to stopping him are tackling well and being assignment sound. The quarterback run game comes down to being disciplined and playing assignment-sound football.”

The big key for Nebraska defensively — echoed by Papuchis and others this week — is getting off the field on third down. Last year Michigan was 8-for-18 (44.44 percent) on third down, the second highest percentage of Nebraska’s Big Ten opponents.

“That was a huge part of the game,” Papuchis said. “One of the factors was their route combinations gave us some issues. They did a nice job scheming the way we play our matchup zone defense. That was something we started looking at last spring.”

The Huskers do have something to build on from last week. Nebraska held Northwestern to just 5-for-20 on third down (25.00 percent). Only Idaho State (13.33 percent) has had a lower percentage this season.

“There were a lot of positives in the way we played defense,” Papuchis said. “We had 10 three-and-outs, really 12 three-and-outs if you count the series where we took a penalty. That’s obviously a positive.

“The challenge this week is to be consistent. This isn’t the first good defensive performance we’ve had but we haven’t really put it together in back-to-back weeks and we need to do that.”

Nebraska could have the help of two former starters back against Michigan. Cornerback Josh Mitchell took part in practice after missing last week’s game with an ankle injury. Defensive tackle Chase Rome was still in street clothes on Tuesday but there’s a chance he’ll be back as well.

“We were a little bit shorthanded last week, but I expect us to be close to full strength if not totally full strength going into Saturday,” Papuchis said.